NRC and DOT Propose Changes to Nuclear Transport Regulations

LANL Seeks to Expand Bioagents Research

* The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (or NRC) and Department of Transportation (or DOT) have proposed changes to the domestic nuclear materials transport regulations which some activists fear will weaken the role of U.S. regulators. NRC and DOT propose to revoke the U.S. requirement that nuclear waste be shipped in double-walled transport containers, and to weaken the current NRC submersion requirements for waste containers. They also propose to allow greater contamination on the surfaces of irradiated fuel and high-level radioactive waste containers during shipping.

NRC and DOT claim that the changes are necessary in order to harmonize U.S. transportation standards with those established by the International Atomic Energy Agency and with DOT's other waste-oriented regulations. Lisa Gue, of the D.C.-based Public Citizen, said, "This trend of invoking international standards as a justification for undermining more stringent domestic requirements does not bode well for NRC and DOT regulation of proposed [Yucca Mountain] nuclear waste repository shipments."

Activists are concerned that these proposed NRC and DOT regulations would compromise protection of public health, safety and the environment. Of particular concern is the attempt to revoke existing transportation safety measures requiring double-walled containment of plutonium waste shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad. Also, if Yucca Mountain were to open, thousands of shipments of radioactive material could be made by barge on some of America's major waterways and oceans in nearly 20 states, stressing the importance of stringent waste container submergence tests and requirements.

Bob Halstead, transportation advisor to the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, said, "The NRC admits that there is no quantitative data [that] would conclusively show that harmonization improves public safety." Los Alamos National Laboratory (or LANL) is currently seeking to expand the list and form of strains of infectious bioagents to include varied strains of the bacteria that carries anthrax, plague and brucellosis. Currently, law enforcement agencies and other facilities can only send select DNA samples to LANL. The proposal would expand that policy to include receipt of samples of sterilized bioagents, which may include some live cells, so that LANL may extract the DNA from the agents for research.

Northern Arizona University currently undertakes the extraction process. Nancy Ambrasiano, spokesperson for LANL, said that local extraction would be aimed at, "getting forensics materials and early-warning tools into the hands of first responders."

The proposal must be approved by LANL's Institutional Biosafety Committee, which met this week in Los Alamos. The Committee issued no formal decision about the policy change. If the Committee were to approve the change, the proposal would then go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for approval. The Committee requested public input regarding the policy change, but would not allow the public to review the research proposals for the expanded list of infectious bioagents. When asked why these documents were not available to the public, the Committee responded that proprietary interests on behalf of the researchers prevented their release.

LANL is currently designing a new facility to house Biosafety Level-3 laboratories, which could handle live strains of anthrax, smallpox, and plague, among other deadly bioagents, for research.

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